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Proud to be an American: Fuentes will play for Team USA in World Classic

As a little leaguer, Brian Fuentes never had aspirations of playing on an Olympic level, wearing the Red, White and Blue.

"Never even crossed my mind," the former Merced College standout said.

Now it does.

Often.

Fuentes will get his chance to play for national pride after being named to Team USA for the upcoming World Baseball Classic -- the closest baseball will get to an Olympic experience.

"It's a huge honor to be selected to play -- and it was the last time also," said Fuentes, who recently signed a two-year, $17.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.

"Having played in three All-Star games and in Japan, nothing is bigger than representing your country.

"This is a big deal for me and the other guys playing. It's the highest honor, in my eyes."

The Americans will open the tournament in Pool C against Canada, Venezuela and Italy.

Their first game is scheduled for March 7 against Canada at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.

Fuentes is one of six returning players from an American team that floundered during the inaugural Classic in 2006.

The US failed to get out of the second round, dropping its final two games of pool play after beating eventual champion Japan 4-3.

Japan went on to upset Cuba in the final, 10-6.

Though the roster won't be finalized until later this week, one thing is certain: The Americans won't be short on stars.

Pitchers Jake Peavy (Padres), Roy Oswalt (Astros) and John Lackey (Angels) will trade starts for Team USA.

Joining Fuentes in the bullpen are Joe Nathan (Twins), B.J. Ryan (Blue Jays) and J.J. Putz (Mets).

"It's the best of the best," Fuentes said. "We didn't finish as well as we would have liked the last time, but hopefully things will be different this time around."

Derek Jeter and American League MVP Dustin Pedroia will jumpstart a lineup blessed with speed and pop.

Jeter will start at shortstop and Pedroia at second base. Kevin Youkilis is penciled in at first, while Chipper Jones and David Wright will likely split time at third.

Brian McCann will start at catcher.

Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore and Ryan Braun make up the tentative outfield.

"Most of these guys are my peers, but when you look around the locker room it feels pretty good to be surrounded by that many quality players," Fuentes said.

"Usually, there's two or three quality players (to a team), but to be around that many is awesome."

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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